Cabinet-Shop Start-Up Obstacles

Pros paint a picture of the difficulties involved in starting a cabinet business. June 23, 2006

I am researching the cabinet industry, including set up of shop and basics. I worked in the construction field for over 15 years and of that, over half was in architectural woodworking, kitchens, etc., but strictly office and customer relations. Material, hardware and the general day to day running of a shop are familiar, but I never had to design the cabinets or construct one. I believe that with the appropriate help, I could be successful. Any advice to sway me one way or the other? I have a location, almost 3000 sq.ft., and even start up machinery. I have some funding to start up, but it's never enough. I would need to find the required help, which may be my biggest issue. I have seen employees come and go for all sorts of reasons, but I know it takes two. Is it ignorant of me to think my business may be different out of the starting gate?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor S:
Finding people to work in a shop is easy. Getting them to be productive and profitable is a grind. In many cases, the design and construction method make the difference between success and failure. I've had way too many projects go south because I couldn't get the thing in the door, up the stairs, around a corner, stood up in the room (seems like I should have learned by now). Knowing some tricks about how to piece large cabinets together in the field, and knowing where to look for problems, can be huge. Also, settling on a construction method is a big deal. Frameless or face frame, overlay or inset, drawer box type, end panel application, hinge type, pre-finish or not, build doors or outsource.

One thing you can depend on from employees is for them to tell you how much better things were where they used to work, and to point out when you make a mistake. But don't expect any help from them in determining the best methods. You must determine these for yourself (for me, lots of trial and error, lots of error). 32mm system seems to work for some people. Not me. Then the bigger problem is converting those methods and systems into something the buying public wants. There are qualified people out there, but I think it's an unusual individual who is willing to invest time and effort into helping set up someone else's business.

From contributor M:
If you want the easiest route to a profitable cabinet business, buy into the True 32 program being offered by the folks at I was in a somewhat similar situation in that I had no experience building cabinets or in woodworking. I went through the training program in 2000 and it has been one of the best decisions, if not the best, I've made. Keep in mind that in many ways, the training they offer is no different than any other tool you may have. You still need the determination and other skills to make a go of it.

What it does offer is a great foundation to make it work a lot easier. I have no doubt that I would have been successful without their program. I also have no doubt it would have taken several additional years of grind to accomplish the same thing. You know that adage, pay now or pay later? Only a lot more later. As with any product or service, the proof is in the pudding. Talk to any graduate of the True 32 program and hear what they have to say. My only amazement is why more people haven't taken it.

From contributor T:

I spent ten-plus years learning the trade and the last five gradually building a custom business, working partly from a small home shop and partly using a friend's well-equipped shop. Six months ago I signed a lease for my own space and have been setting it up and working there since then. As a capable cabinetmaker, producing the work in the shop turns out to be the easiest (and most enjoyable) part of the deal. Getting the work, doing drawings, procuring materials in a timely way (what I call the front end of every job) and finishing and installation (what I call the back end) added together require more time and effort than the production. But if you haven't learned the trade from the shop side, you're likely in for trouble.

Overhead is the unrelenting dagger in the heart of any business. If you don't keep up with production and cash flow, you're dead. So many things can and will go wrong. To the extent that you rely on others to execute the work, getting out of jams that arise is that much more troublesome. And if you haven't worked on the shop side, it will be difficult to assess potential employees for your specific needs. I make minor mistakes routinely, and solve them just as quickly because I signed the job, I drew the job, and now I'm building the job or installing the job. The more distance there is between those functions, the more opportunity for foul-up. And with every misstep, your net income or profit falls. I do custom work; production work may be more forgiving and suitable for you, though also more competitive. It's not a happy report. But after working most of this Saturday (routine) and expecting to work at least a half day Sunday (becoming routine), it's reasonably honest and representative of running a small custom woodworking business these days.